On Our Journey Now (Sermon)

A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 17, 2017

Text: Exodus 14:19-31
19The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so, the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Holy One drove the sea back by a strong east Wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch, the Holy One in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25God clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Holy One is fighting for them against Egypt.” 26Then the Holy One said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Holy One tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 30Thus the Holy One saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel saw the great work that the Holy One did against the Egyptians. So, the people feared the Holy One and believed in the God and in God’s servant Moses.

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t mourn
Pharaoh’s army get drownded
O Mary, don’t you weep

Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

Well Moses stood on the Red Sea shore
And smote the water with a two by four
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

Brothers and sisters don’t you cry
They’ll be good times by and by
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t mourn
Pharaoh’s army get drownded
O Mary, don’t you weep

So, there you have it, Pharaoh’s army got drowned and the children of Israel are off on their journey. This scene is the epicenter of the great drama that is the Exodus. This drama is the defining story, the foundational myth of the Hebrew people. It tells the tale of the way in which God rescues God’s people from slavery and eventually brings them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as we understand the story this way, it is a powerful story of liberation. In today’s Words of Preparation, Robert Allen Warrior writes, “The Exodus, with its picture of a God who takes the side of the oppressed and powerless, has been a beacon of hope for many in despair.”

It is this beacon of hope that inspired the creation of spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Mary Don’t You Weep.” As we know, these were not just songs of solace for a captive people, these were marching songs, songs sung as signals among escaping slaves, following the Underground Railroad to freedom. Indeed, these were freedom songs voiced as people fought to overturn Jim Crow laws and segregation. These were songs that sang out proudly,

On my journey now!
On my journey now!
Well, I wouldn’t give nothing
for my journey now.

The journey is long and arduous. It does not come without a price. It’s a long road to freedom. Still, it is one that can be traveled with grit and determination, aided, at times, by song and celebration.

For people who are oppressed, it’s not difficult to see how this might be an inspiring story. It’s a prototype for many classic rescue tales in which the good people are saved, often at the last minute, as the bad people are get their due. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read more than one story, seen more than one movie, in which I have cheered the good guys and gloated over the demise of the bad, sometimes with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, sometimes shouting right out loud. Pharaoh’s army got drowned. Whoopee! Praise the Lord.

But what do we do with this tale of destruction if we claim to serve the God of Love, the Prince of Peace, the Spirit of Life? As far as I can tell, the primary apology for this part of the story is that the disabled chariots, the drowned horses and riders, were Pharaoh’s war machine. They were an extension of Pharaoh’s challenge to the God who is above all Gods. They were collateral damage in an epic battle for the divine right to rule over all creation. In this view, it seems to me that Hebrews and Egyptians alike become pawns in a war of the gods. This is a story old as story itself.

This is one of those troubling texts of which our contemporary consciences ask, “Couldn’t God have saved the Egyptians, too?” After all, the text indicates that halfway across the dry sea bed, they realized they were in over their heads and cried out, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Holy One is fighting for them against Egypt.” But it was too late as the waters roared and crashed around them. The text makes it clear that this was God’s doing through the action of God’s servant Moses. However, we’re not sure this is the God we want to journey with.

In commenting on this text, Casey Thornburgh Sigmon suggests that one important focus of this story is to show God’s power over tyranny. So, Pharaoh becomes the classic tyrant, holding onto the Hebrew people as a source of cheap labor for his own economic benefit. Still, she raises the question of whether or not the story isn’t complicated by any “notion that Pharaoh’s army does not consist of persons who are victims of tyranny in their own ways. The army is made up of people who have hopes and dreams and families and inside jokes and, perhaps, questions about their role in life as soldiers” (Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, “Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31, September 17, 2017,” workingpreacher.org).

As I thought about her comment, it struck me that this might be the perspective of persons of privilege. I’m not saying it is wrong to try to put a human face on one’s enemies. In today’s other Words of Preparation, Pastor Martin Niemoeller was able to write, from a Nazi concentration camp, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. [God] is not even the enemy of [God’s] enemies.”

Perhaps, this evolution in the conscience of Pastor Niemoeller is part of the journey we are all on. We must learn to love our enemies. It does not come automatically or easily. In fact, in best Jewish practice of producing midrash, we find an ancient legend in which God encounters an archangel celebrating the defeat of the Egyptian army in the sea and asks, “Why do you celebrate while the work of my hands is being destroyed?” It appears that, even in exacting justice, compassion reigns in the heart of God.

Still, there is the challenge of putting ourselves in the sandals of those who are oppressed. I cannot say with certainty that no one here this morning has ever experienced abuse, neglect, oppression, even slavery. I know I have not. Sigmon suggests that “When Israel saw Pharaoh’s army on horseback, they were horrified. Israel, with flocks and families, was on foot and could not move very fast. The cards were stacked against them.” That is not a terror I have known. When slaves, fleeing for freedom, literally had to wade in the water to escape the hounds and their pursuing armed masters, they, too, must have been horrified. I have not known that terror either. So, I will not fault my siblings who sang, “to the HOLY ONE [who] has triumphed gloriously; [who] has thrown horse and rider into the sea” (Exodus 15:21) or who shouted, “Pharaoh’s army got drowned; O Mary don’t you weep.”

It might be best if we keep this ancient word in the category of myth. As I understand it, there is little, if any, corroborating historical evidence that Hebrew slavery in Egypt or the Exodus actually occurred. That doesn’t mean they didn’t. Most myths are born of some kernel of facticity, have some root in reality. But it is the meaning the myth carries that gives it its power to shape our lives. Another commentator, Anathea Portier-Young, captures the meaning of this ancient story when she writes, “As God leads God’s people from slavery to freedom, God again makes light in darkness and, by a fierce wind or spirit (ruach), rearranges sea, reveals land, and divides waters” (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31, September 14, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).

Here she connects the great myth of the Exodus to the great myth of Creation. These are stories about the God we worship. This is the God who brings order out of chaos and freedom from all that enslaves. This is the God with whom the children of Israel were called to journey. The same call comes to us. She continues, “Exodus, the road out from slavery to freedom, is a new creation. God’s power to create from nothing, from formlessness and void, is the same power by which God saves and transforms. It reveals a path for God’s people and builds walls to protect them from the chaos and death of the sea.”

So, we might ask ourselves this morning, are we ready to journey now? Are we open to something new, a new creation, even? Are we willing to walk the road that takes us from whatever might enslave us into the wonderful freedom of the Holy One? Can we trust that God’s will for us and for all creation is shalom, peace and well-being? Are we ready to journey with loved ones, with friends and neighbors, with strangers and even so-called enemies to that Holy Mountain where there will no longer be any hurting or destroying “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the HOLY ONE as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:10)? Following the wisdom of this ancient story of liberation and grace, are we ready, willing and able to be on our journey now? May it be so. Amen.

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